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Rock Band 3
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 9.2
Sound: 9.5
Control: 8.9
Replay Value: 9.1
Rating: 9

I will freely admit I’ve been inundated with music games in the past month, which has resulted in a temporary aversion to the genre. Even so, in my eyes, it isn’t difficult to see which music game is the class of the category for the holiday season: it’s Rock Band 3, which features everything we’ve always loved about the series, plus several nice additions that enhance the hardcore appeal big time and actually improves on the single-player experience. Although the game is still best played with friends – as is the case with most all good interactive music titles – this is the most fun I’ve had by myself with any game featuring plastic instruments. Plus, I caught a glimpse of how insanely difficult the piano (or keyboard) can be, what with the inclusion of that new peripheral. In the end, there’s very little wrong here and if you need a new music endeavor for 2010, I wholeheartedly recommend the third RB installment.

Perhaps the only downside – if one can even call it a downside – is the same ol’ graphical presentation we’ve always had. I suppose there are a few visual upgrades but they’re very minor and for the most part, such graphics feel a little outdated. It’s definitely time for an upgrade when Harmonix steps up to do Rock Band 4. But besides that, we still get the same great color, decent musician detail, solid special effects, and slick menu interface. There’s a lot to like, especially when viewed on a top-quality HDTV, and one can really get involved with the on-screen action. The entire point of a game like this is to make us feel as if we’re a true-blue rock star, which means we need a realistic, believable atmosphere. Well, despite the aging palette, RB3 gives us exactly what we need and in terms of technical miscues or drawbacks, they’re few and far between, if they exist at all. I just hope the designers take the next visual step.

If you couldn’t guess, the sound reigns supreme. With 83 tracks from such a diverse array of fantastic artists, crystal clear sound, wonderful balance, and impressive effects that only improve on the immersion factor, the sound is top-notch. Honestly, if you can’t find at least a few dozen songs that you just adore, you’re simply not a fan of awesome music. I really like how they blend various effects in with these master recordings, and I also like how a good stereo system can really take advantage of everything Rock Band 3 offers. Now, it could’ve been all in my head, but it did seem as if certain tracks sounded better than others and if true, that would constitute a small flaw. In general, though, it’s impossible to be disappointed with the surprisingly eclectic rock soundtrack, and everything only gets better when you toss in extra DLC.

Before I get to that keyboard, let’s talk about one of the significant structure changes- in the past, players going solo would progress along a map, conquering various set lists in a mostly linear fashion. There just wasn’t much else to do. But this time ‘round, we get the challenges. In addition to standard challenges, there are also instrument-specific challenges, so if you wish to master each accessory on its own, the game offers ample opportunity to do just that. It’s also great that Harmonix put so much effort and imagination into the available challenges; many focus on certain bands and situations, and you never feel as if you’re doing the same thing over and over. Oh, and if you have tracks from other Rock Band games loaded onto the system, RB3 will actually create all-new challenges based on those songs. This alone gives you plenty to do.

You can take on these challenges with friends or by yourself and upon completing the challenge, you earn experience points that add to character level, and also serve to unlock new band outfits and arenas. In this way, it’s similar to recent entries in the franchise, as your little underground group starts with a van and after a lot of hard work and glorious guitar riffs, you’ll end up with a private jet. And due to the challenges, the entire game feels more dynamic than ever before. You’re also not painted into a corner when it comes to advancement, as different tours will often allow for different player choices. For instance, when your current form of transportation makes a stop, you have the option of selecting between three different set lists. So you’re almost never stuck playing two or three songs in a row you really don’t enjoy very much.

Hell, you even have reason to retry certain challenges because there’s a secondary goal for many of them; if you can clear the built-in bonus challenge, you’ll nab extra EXP. Therefore, I prefer this structure over the more mundane world map and I always found myself wanting to play more and perform better. Then, after a little while of getting accustomed to things, I decided it was time to take my game to the next level…it was time to give that keyboard a whirl. It’s a full, authentic keyboard that, despite being smaller than a real one, certainly feels and responds exactly like a genuine keyboard any musician might use. That alone is an impressive feat. Now, you can either take the lame-o way out and simply utilize the basic keyboard mode, where only five keys come into play. If you’re going to do this, though, don’t even bother. The keyboard is there for the hardcore, who really want a significant challenge.

Pro level is where it’s at; all the keys are used but at least you’ll get an idea of how much skill and talent is required. I’m not saying you won’t be able to give piano recitals after mastering the keyboard in this game but I’ll tell you what: you’ll be proud of yourself and you’ll most certainly have an edge on anyone else who wants to learn piano. On the other hand, it’s such a departure from the relatively straightforward guitar playing that some will find the keyboard overwhelming. The question is whether or not you want to get the most out of your Rock Band experience: if you want to stick with the basics and do what you’ve always done in the past, you can do so. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that because even without the keyboard, new challenges, and overall more dynamic setup, a great – and familiar – game resides at its core.

Now, for the record, if you want to go even further, there’s a Pro Guitar mode you can try that will really test your skills. The 100+ button Pro Mustang Guitar from Mad Catz is guaranteed to tax the snot out of you; are you prepared for the steep learning curve? I didn’t get a chance to try this but one can only imagine… Besides, I don’t need to try it to know it must be tremendously tough, and along with the keyboard, it makes Rock Band 3 the most complete music game for the truly dedicated. While most everything else remains the same, they even tossed in some cymbals for the drums for an extra edge, and you could spend a very long time with all that’s included. It’s true that you’d have to shell out for that keyboard and that without either the keyboard or special guitar, there’s no major difference between this and past installments.

It’s also true that the graphics are a little outdated (even though they suffice) and there is always an option to play the simple, uninspired way. But hey, the latter is your choice and the bottom line is that the potential of Rock Band 3, if you opt for full immersion, is unparalleled. Although it may seem on the surface that we haven’t come that far since the early days of the first Guitar Hero and Rock Band, if you look deeper, you will invariably find a ton of longevity. In the end, if you’re thinking RB3 is just like any other entry, you’re kinda right…but only because you decided not to look. And besides, since when has Rock Band, even without the hardcore frills mentioned here, been anything but great?

The Good: Excellent, diverse soundtrack and near-perfect sound. Great responsiveness. Multiplayer is always a blast. Overhauled single-player (challenges the focal point) is appreciated. Options for the “Pros” can be amazingly fulfilling. Longevity and immersion level is higher than ever.

The Bad: Outdated visuals. Learning curve spikes big-time with the hardcore options. A few lackluster environments.

The Ugly: The uninitiated trying Pro Keyboard mode. But as a caveat, this ugliness can upgrade to sheer satisfying beauty given enough time.

11/13/2010   Ben Dutka